Resident Expert: Crisis in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine

Reports of revolution and civil war in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine have dominated the media this year. Salaam checked in with NYU Abu Dhabi Professor of Social Research and Public Policy Georgi Derluguian to ask how a social scientist might think about these geopolitical events and what might motivate young people to take part in these conflicts.

How can we gain an understanding about what is happening in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine?
What is happening in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine is the sad story where social scientists cannot claim to have more information than diplomats or spies. Still, we might have more insight.

Something happened in these countries that made them failed states. Suddenly on our TVs we saw young gunmen and street battles. The first impressions in such situations are extremely confused, and for the locals perhaps even more than for outsiders. There was an autocrat in power, a Big Boss. It all looked like it would last for forever — until it was no more…

As social scientists, we can reconstruct what we call the causal chain of events that led to the outcome of civil war in these countries. But I ought to admit to my own emotions as social scientist. Being a sociologist means that we can explain, but we are powerless to change things on our own. Change requires the concerted effort of very many people and big organizations. In their absence, one realizes that things can get even worse, and for many years to come. This is perhaps the saddest things about the profession of sociology.

As a sociologist, what do you think are some of the larger trends that have led to situations like those happening now in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine?
The great historian Eric Hobsbawm made a striking observation: "For 80 percent of humanity the Middle Ages ended suddenly in the 1950s." This is a bold claim, but I think Hobsbawm was still too reserved. I believe that the period that ended in the 1950s began much earlier than the Middle Ages.

For the past approximately 10,000 years, the vast majority of humans have lived in villages. Since the industrial revolution, more and more people have left village life to move to the cities, but in the past 60 years, this trend has rapidly increased.

Humanity is going through a great transition. The village life that has structured agricultural societies is coming to an end. People are leaving villages to find work in cities. Unfortunately, however, many leave their villages only to find that there is no work in cities, and they find themselves in lives in which they have little hope for the future.

What do villages provide that cities cannot?
The village is an incredible invention because it allows a group of humans, at a scale that was unimaginable to the earlier humans who were roving pack hunters, to live sedentary lives together.

The village basically does everything for its residents. It structures behavior. It accompanies residents from the cradle to death and burial. That's not to say village life promises an extremely happy existence, because one's experience is scripted. Women marry at a certain age and have children; men often follow in the footsteps of their fathers. So, if your father is a potter, you will probably be a potter.

But what is great about the village is that it does not need police, because people know each other and regulate each others' behavior. It does not need orphanages because orphans are adopted by relatives or other members of the village. And this is one of the reasons people today are nostalgic for "village life" as they consider it.

I want to stress that life is not easy in villages. But we have good data that shows that people who live in villages are among the most happy in the world and have more friends than those who live in big cities.

Residents of cities often suffer from alienation. Social scientists have good data about this, too. If you live in a large city, like Moscow or New York, and travel to work via public transportation, you will see on average approximately 14,000 people per day — and you don't know any of them.

In a village you might see 50 to 100 people every day and you know all of them. They are your friends and relatives, and in fact this is a typical situation. The people you meet in a village are at least your good neighbors, they are therefore what we call members of your support network. They are the people on whom you can rely by both tradition and long personal histories of past exchange of favors which continues into the future. And so it had been for generations. This is what is ending right now, for billions of people.

But industrial cities have been around for hundreds of years. What's different now?
The biggest problem in the world right now is that there are so many men who feel alienated. Men who cannot realize themselves in the world. And I say "men" specifically here because the gender component is very important. They can no longer be peasants; they cannot be like their grandparents because village life is gone. On the other hand, they cannot be pilots, or doctors, or even assembly line workers, because industry in their countries has vanished.

So village life was first destroyed in the West with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, when people were brought into big towns. And these were not necessarily big towns next to them. Workers in cities like Pittsburgh or Chicago could have been from places as far away as Norway or Ireland. And eventually, the workers could come from even more distant lands, like rural China.

But migration from villages to cities has been happening on a massive scale all over the world for about the past 60 years. Policy makers weren't worried because they expected that migrants would find good paying jobs, that migrants or their children would get an education, live in apartments with running water, and retire from jobs with pensions.

It would no longer be the village that would take care of residents but some kind of bureaucracy, like a welfare system or veterans affairs administration. People began to live much longer lives because vaccinations and antibiotics saved lives that would normally be lost in villages. But in many places throughout the world, there are simply no industrial jobs in cities for young men and thus no way for them to provide for a family.

What does this have to do with issues that plague conflict zones like Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine?
In my discipline, sociology, I am interested in seeing the big picture. I want to see the situation in very simple terms because — and this is very important — if a big global trend cannot be observed in real life situations, it has no reality. On the other hand, every mundane situation must add up to a global trend.

Imagine a very simple situation. A man loses his job. But the job is not just lost — the whole sector has abandoned him. He will never find a job again doing what he has trained to do because he assembled cars in a country that no longer has an auto industry. Something similar to this happened to Egypt where the local car industry was shuttered in favor of cheap import cars from South Korea. What is a man like this to do? As a young man, you are supposed to achieve something in life, find a wife, and support a family. But how can one do this if there are no jobs?

One scenario is that the man abuses drugs or alcohol and dies at a young age. But another — though less likely scenario — is that this young man meets someone in the street who tells him that he has lost his job because some ethnic minority is trying to fleece him, or that his plight is the fault of big, bad Uncle Sam. "Come fight with us," he says. Suddenly this young man who once had no hope for the future now has a gun and a purpose and feels empowered. And in many cases it doesn't matter what to him what the cause is.

People need to believe in something bigger than themselves. This is a very simple explanation for patriotism and radicalism.

It's possible that many of the young men who have joined the wars in Ukraine and in Iraq and Syria are men who had little hope for the future because they lacked basic necessities like jobs, dignity, purpose in life, realistic hopes. And some people who don't have these things will look to find it in some way.

Georgi Derluguian has been conducting field research since the 1980’s on various guerrilla movements, revolutions and civil wars in Africa, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He also studied the social origins of nationalist intellectuals and the politics of market reforms. Derluguian received numerous prestigious awards including Carnegie Scholar of Vision and Norbert Elias Prize. In 2006 the Times Literary Supplement listed among the Books of the Year his monograph Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A Biography in World-Systems Perspective.